Why I’m Prioritizing My Black Queer Friendships Through Therapy

Photographed by Olivia Joan.
“Prioritize your close friendships!” I’m sure you’ve heard this sentiment before because some version of it goes viral every other week on social media. However, beyond the fleeting viral moments and the neat Instagram infographics we share, it’s important to unpack how we are collectively building networks of community that are primarily focused on sustaining, strengthening and centering our friendships. Just like in romantic partnerships, we have to move with intention and care when it comes to platonic friendships. One of the ways we can meaningfully invest in our friendships is through therapy.
I know what you’re thinking. Therapy is only deeply personal solo work or a deeply frustrating emotional journey you embark on with a romantic partner as a last resort after the spark has started to fade. Therapy isn’t for friendships. Those should be fun, easy, and effortless. But, sometimes they aren’t and in light of this, we need to be open to trying to work things out with the same enthusiasm we usually preserve for romantic relationships.
Growing up, I was labeled the quiet one who “didn’t start any trouble” and because of this, I became an adult that didn’t know I was allowed to voice my opinion. Being assertive meant breaking out of the role I was assigned and that would upset people and upsetting people terrified me. Because of my avoidant nature, I wasn’t really able to properly navigate interpersonal conflicts and this resulted in some fallouts with friends. A friend would hurt my feelings and I, unable to address this hurt with them, would just… go quiet. Never bring it up. I would disengage and then eventually, disappear. These shortcomings affected my ability to be an effective communicator and like many other people, I didn’t consider taking these issues with my friends into the therapy space alongside them. In fact, I conducted a poll survey on my Twitter and out of the fifty-one people that participated, 63% were willing to go to therapy with their friend(s), 14% wouldn’t even consider it and 23% of people didn’t even know it was an option.

On a communal level, I want us all to collectively realize the significance that therapy has as a tool for sustaining the connections we have with each other.

Masiyaleti Mbewe
Now, don’t get me wrong, boundaries are important and sometimes letting some friendships go that are not particularly healthy is an essential part of growth and self-care. It’s important to remember though, that we all have relational traumas, schemas and triggers that will still show up and, as we move towards centering our friendships, we have to be cognizant of the ways we will have to address them. 
“When practicing family therapy, it is important to understand that issues within the family stem from ongoing cycles and patterns. These cycles and patterns are often inherited, formed through people’s experiences, are based on their intentions and their desires for love or care and they can show up in friendship therapy as well," explains Shahem Mclaurin, a therapist, social worker and online creator. "In therapy, if friends can reach an understanding that they have the tools to function and that they have, in fact, been able to function before, they usually find solace in each other.”
We’ve all seen how lack of communication can cause harm in friendships. Remember in season 4 of Insecure when  we were all frustrated watching Issa and Molly’s friendship deteriorate? There was a disconnect, contempt, neglect and a communication breakdown that caused a lot of harm in their friendship. As a fan of the show who could relate to these struggles, all I  wanted to do was intervene and help them work through their issues. I also noticed how both Issa and Molly were more invested in preserving their respective romantic partnerships and  prioritizing their work than attending to their friendship. In fact, the season’s finale sees the two only successfully reconciling after Molly and Andrew break up. That’s indicative of how often we neglect our friendships for fleeting romance . 
While this is just one example of how capitalistic and cisheteronormative societal dynamics condition us to prioritize romance and work can play out if left unchecked, the fact that the the idea of Issa and Molly going to therapy together seemed implausible (and wasn’t even a plot point) is a reminder of just how underutilized friendship therapy is. As it stands, our most popular reference to the power of friendship therapy is the book Big Friendship by former hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. The book, as the authors note, is “a call to value your friendships in all of their complexity. Actively choose them. And, sometimes, fight for them,” and “a testament to the power of society’s most underappreciated relationship.” The undervaluing of friendships is why even talking about friendship therapy is still pretty taboo. 
“I think friendship therapy is extremely important even if it is relatively new.” Mclaurin says. “I had a small falling out with a best friend of mine and in the middle of it she requested that we seek therapy and find someone to mediate our conflict. Looking back, had I invested in our interpersonal healing with the help of a clinician, we would have spared months of being apart from each other.” They went on to explain why friendship therapy is so important. “I have practiced this in an unofficial capacity and have seen how this kind of mediation between friends can change people’s ideas on connection and disrupt the belief that platonic friendships are less important than  romantic relationships.”
According to cultural commentator, Youtuber and founder of the Smart Brown Girls book club, Jouelzy, this collective shift in how Black people are beginning to think more deeply about their close friendships can be attributed to a variety of things i.e., because of the effects of the pandemic and the advent of social media, a lot more people are beginning to seek out community, “I think the reason conversations like these are happening more frequently is largely because of the increase in cultural commentary [and] theory is moving from academic institutions and into the pop-culture framework. It’s not like [conversations about friendship therapy] haven’t happened before; this time there’s more of a deep dive and the conversation is more accessible because of social media.” she says. “Whenever we are coming into an understanding of our different identities because of feminist, queer and gender theory, we also have to reframe communities of safety and what that usually means is we begin to talk more about friendship. So, when you’re a Black woman, queer, non-binary or trans, you are going to have more conversations about safety in the communal sense because a lot of us are getting left out in the cold.”

"The conversation around friendships is often centered on the person just finding friends and not enough on the person thinking about the kind of friends they want and how they are going to show up for one another."

Statistics that focus specifically on the rates at which Black people have access to therapy are hard to come by. However, a report published by the Williams Institute highlights how Black adults (in the U.S.) in the LGBT community fared much worse in terms of employment, income, job security and access to healthcare than their counterparts who were not in the LGBT community. Mirroring these findings is a report published by the African Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) Commission that states that Africans that are part of vulnerable groups (which include the LGBT community) are continuously failed by the healthcare system. When we consider these societal contexts, members of these specific groups are more likely to find community or form friendships with each other as confirmed by M. Paz Galupo’s 2015 study.
Having access to therapy is a privilege not all of us can afford but being committed to the process of building and sustaining community is something we can all practice. This mindset would require us to think more deeply about the ways we can show up for other people and how other people can show up for us. “The more marginalized you are, the harder it is to find a therapist that connects or at least understands your identity. So, beyond being able to access a therapist, the conversation around friendships is often centered on the person just finding friends and not enough on the person thinking about the kind of friends they want and how they are going to show up for one another. Are you actively doing the work to be the person who extends grace? Because you have to be the kind of friend you want,” Jouelzy adds.
Lethabo Mailula is an academic, cultural critic and educator based in Johannesburg. She employs the traditional African philosophy of Ubuntu when examining modern millennial friendships on the continent. “Ubuntu is an ethical practice. It is the fundamental element of existing as a human being among other human beings,” she explains. Mailula has observed a splintering departure of the practice among young millennials due to the aftermath of colonialism, the pressures of assimilation and capitalism A friendship premised on Ubuntu is centered around community and radical feminist praxis i.e., emotional, material and tangible communal resources. It’s a system of togetherness that is not hierarchical. In a way, African millennials have moved away from Ubuntu and pivoted towards a self-centered way of living because of capitalism. While you do find pockets of genuine friendships that prioritize community care, our approach to friendships have changed a lot.
What Mailula highlights here can be observed among my current friend group. We are mostly queer African millennials at varying stages of our careers concerned with navigating finances in the middle of a global pandemic. Because we are scattered across the continent (and despite being chronically online) we have to work really hard to check in on each other; how we engage with the concept of community has indeed shifted.

If people build platonic friendships with the same vigor and intention as they do romantic relationships, they would likely be surprised that friends can be just as consistent, intimate, dependable, supportive, and nurturing as a romantic partner.

Shahem Mclaurin, therapist AND social worker
“If we start to think more broadly and look at the generational friendships that have existed between our grandmothers for instance, those friendships have stood the test of time. There was a lot of work put into sustaining those friendships and that work was centered around care. Keeping each other alive is a communal project,” Mailula adds.
What this conversation all culminates to is a growing, collective desire to begin — or rather, continue — the ongoing process of dismantling the various oppressive systems that work to deprive us of each other. “I believe that people deserve to experience the love that they desire. Romantic relationships do fulfill needs that friendships can’t, friendships fulfill needs that romantic relationships can’t, and so on,” McLaurin says. “I do, however, believe that friendships cover a lot more bases than a lot of people are willing to give credit for. If people build platonic friendships with the same vigor and intention as they do romantic relationships, they would likely be surprised that friends can be just as consistent, intimate, dependable, supportive, and nurturing as a romantic partner. Sometimes when people develop relationships centered around friendship a lot of things  can slide into place.”
One of the things people usually ask when the suggestion of friendship therapy comes up is, “Who is going to pay for it?”  I get it, it’s a valid concern. The answer is complicated and may vary from situation to situation. It could look like splitting the costs of a few sessions or negotiating ways we could both contribute. On a communal level, I want us all to collectively realize the significance that therapy has as a tool for sustaining the connections we have with each other. Working towards this could translate into setting up funds and resources for those of us in our communities that might need help working on their friendships too. What I do know for sure is that I love the friends I have now and when conflict or harm arises between us — because it will — I want them to be as invested in our healing as I am. 

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series